x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Foreign policy won't be on the ballot for Iranians in June

Whoever wins the presidential election in Iran, he won't be capable of dramatically changing the nation's direction in foreign policy.

As Iran's 2013 presidential election approaches, the world is closely watching the prospective figures contending to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the inflammatory Iranian president known for his controversial views on nuclear energy, human rights and Israel. According to recent statistics by the International Monetary Fund, under Mr Ahmadinejad's presidency, inflation reached 25.2 per cent in 2013, unemployment 13 per cent, and economic growth a paltry 0.8 per cent.

Election on June 14 will come at a tense moment for the Islamic Republic. Due to its nuclear development, Iran is encountering an unprecedented level of international isolation, and due to its unconditional support for the Assad regime in Syria, the country is also facing increasing regional pressure. Additionally, western sanctions have crippled Iran's economy and collapsed its currency. All of which raises speculation on how the next president will address the country's internal economic growth and amend Tehran's regional and international standing.

Scholars who study Iran are cognisant of the fact that it is often better to not predict Iran's presidential elections. The last two presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mr Ahmadinejad, are two prominent examples of the unpredictable character of Iran's presidential elections. There are several reasons for this.

For one, while the presidential campaign and election process in the United States unfolds over a duration of two years, Iran's presidential elections are only a two-month-long process, from the first campaigning to voting.

Secondly, it is worth noting that while the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, describes Iran's presidential elections as fair and free, the democratic character of these elections are questionable.

The 12 unelected members of the Guardian Council, six of whom are directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, have a history of arbitrarily disqualifying reform-minded candidates, women and those who are perceived as disloyal to the principles of the state and the Islamic revolution, from running for office. The authority to do so is implicitly granted by Iran's constitution, which accords the Guardian Council with "supervision of elections".

The 2013 election has already raised significant controversies, both domestically and internationally. Legislation enacted in December 2012 changed the age requirements for presidential candidates, setting the minimum age to 40 years and maximum to 75 years. These changes automatically disqualify a prominent candidate who was the focus of several political and policy analysts, former president and challenger to the Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, from seeking the office again.

Meanwhile, Mir Hussein Mosavi, the reformist candidate in the 2009 presidential election and the leader of the crushed green movement, has also been barred from running.

In regards to the prospects of shaping Tehran's foreign policy, it is crucial to note that this facet of Iranian politics will not be dramatically altered by the next president. That's because Iran's policy towards the West, Israel, Syria, Arab Gulf states and nuclear enrichment is closely guided by the Supreme Leader.

However, the Iranian president does have the ability to help set the tone in regional and international circles. Although Iran's elections are shaped by unpredictability, what can be foreseen is the Iranian government's seeking of a figure who will bear the following fundamental characteristics to assure the survival of the regime.

First, the most significant quality that the prospective president is likely to possess is a demonstrated loyalty to the Supreme Leader and Iran's revolutionary principles. For the Supreme Leader, this is one of the most crucial criteria. Ali Khamenei's 24-year-rule has been mainly characterised by exercising power without accountability to the populace. This has been achieved by wielding the presidency as an apparatus for presenting and implementing the leader's ideals in the public eye, both internally and internationally.

The second characteristic is linked to the popularity of the president. The Supreme Leader, his hardline followers and the Guardian Council favour a figure who is not only popular among Iran's senior Revolutionary Guards, but who can also sustain some support among common citizens. There is also an increasing demand for a figure capable of efficiently combating Iran's declining economy and unemployment, as well as manage regional and international pressures and sanctions.

Looking at the currently approved presidential candidates, such as Mohsen Rezaee, Ali Fallahian, Manouchehr Mottaki and Hassan Rouhani, it is evident that they could hardly possess all the aforementioned characteristics.

Then there's Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the top adviser, close confidant, strategist, theoretician and chief of staff to Mr Ahmadinejad - who happens to be the president's in-law (Mr Ahmadinejad's son is married to Mr Mashaei's daughter). Mr Mashaei is characterised as a "religious-nationalist", the president's "comrade" and more importantly, Mr Ahmadinejad's hand-picked prospective successor. Mr Ahmadinejad has also shown signs that he will not leave office quietly and gracefully unless his chief of staff is permitted to run for office.

Nevertheless, Mr Mashaei will most likely be rejected by the Guardian Council. Known for his Persian nationalistic views and statements describing Iranians as "friends of all people in the world - even Israelis", Mr Mashaei has had a poor reception among the hardline clerics who prefer campaign platforms running on Islamic slogans.

Although Iran's presidential elections have always been characterised as intriguing, controversial and unpredictable, what is clear about the approaching 2013 election is what has been clear for the last four years - that the new president will not be capable of dramatically changing Iran's foreign policy.

Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-Syrian scholar, president of the International American Council on the Middle East, and a contributing editor for Harvard International Review.

rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu